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Better Travel and Landscape Photos in Full Sun

Making the most of this tricky time of day to shoot more interesting outdoor photographs

Reading the pages of Outdoor Photographer, National Geographic, or any number of other publications that feature outstanding images of nature and faraway places, one thing becomes quickly evident: midday is rarely the ideal time for interesting photographs. 

The pages of these magazines are filled with images made at the edges of the day when the light is low and dramatic and above all interesting. Practically any scene at which you aim your camera will look more interesting if you do it at sunrise or sunset. And if you read advice from world-class photographers on making such beautiful landscapes and travel photos, it’s a guarantee that they’ll tell you to take a siesta after lunch and don’t waste your time shooting in vain in the middle of the day. 

That’s all well and good, and true enough of course. But for those of us who aren’t on assignment but are instead traveling for fun, we don’t always have the ability to arrive at great destinations as the warm sun is peaking over the horizon. When our visit to St. Mark’s Square happens at noon, for instance, or when the family is at the matinee movie and we’ve got two hours to find a great shot, we must learn to make do with this less-than-ideal lighting. So how do you make your pictures better when the light is working against you? Here are five ways to make the most of it the next time you find yourself trying to make good photographs when the sun is high overhead. 

Find Some Shade

For travel photographers, if you can find cover from trees, or in a street bazaar or other open area surrounded by tall buildings, harsh light ceases to be a problem. In these situations you can find open shade in which to work, allowing you to avoid the problem of harsh direct sunlight altogether. If you’re looking to photograph the landscape, with the sun high overhead it’s not likely that wide views will look as appealing as they might at other times of day. Instead consider smaller scenes—vignettes, even. Try to find something in the woods, where you can get small and find details that appear when you’re not working in harsh, contrasty light. Even if you can’t find actual woods or forest cover, even a single tree can provide some shade for a small charming scene that will photograph better at this time of day than a grand vista. 


Overpower The Sun

Another way to change the light isn’t to hide from it in shade, but rather try overpowering the sun with a flash. If you’re shooting on the street in Paris, for instance, the bright sun is no match for the right exposure and a powerful speedlight. Think of it this way: If the basic daylight exposure on a normal sunny day is 1/200th of a second at ƒ/11 and ISO 100, you can probably get your flash to match or overpower the sun, even without relying on high-speed sync (though that’s certainly another option for this type of shot). Underexpose the ambient by a stop (by choosing, say, an ISO of 50 with the same aperture and shutter speed outlined above) and then get close to your subject and use a TTL speedlight flash to provide a new key—evenly illuminating the subject and eliminating the contrasty light from the midday sun. While this tip works more frequently for street photographers and travel shooters, it can certainly work for closeup details within the landscape as well. 

Embrace The Contrast

Shadows are longer earlier and later in the day, but as long as you’re not on the equator at high noon you’re bound to have some semblance of strong shadows in your scene. If you look carefully, perhaps you can find prominent shadows to work as a compositional element. Maybe that’s the geometric shadow of an architectural detail, or perhaps you’ll find a subject in bright sun in front of a background in dark shadow. In other words, if you can’t find areas of low contrast (shade) try to swim with the tide and embrace the high contrast the harsh sunlight provides, putting foreground and background in the opposite keys of highlight and shadow.


Use A Mechanical Advantage

Sometimes you’re going to be stuck shooting in bright sun and having a difficult time seeing the exposures you’re making. Are the shadows too dark, or the highlights too bright? If you’re shooting RAW image files you’ve got some latitude to rescue slightly askew exposures in post, but you’ve got to at least get in the ballpark. And how do you do that if you can’t see your screen in bright sun? Sure, you can try to shade your screen with a shirt or hat or by stepping inside, but those options are intermittent at best. Instead, if you’re having a hard time viewing your work on the camera’s LCD make sure you regularly check the histograms to ensure the exposures are adequate, neither too light or too dark. If you blow out the highlights or block up the shadows, and you’re not within range of the RAW image file, there’s no recovering it in the computer. So check that histogram and make sure its peak is not clipped off at either side of the frame. (Peaks toward the right represent a preponderance of bright tones, and histogram peaks toward the left represent dark tones.) The screenshot above shows a typical histogram for a photo shot on a bright sunny day without blowing out highlight details.

Polarize And Find Color

I acknowledge that it’s a little bit ham-fisted to suggest a polarizer as a solution for harsh light. These filters do no such thing. But what they do deliver is less reflected glare for more vibrant colors and deeper blue skies. (See the image at the top of the page.) So when I’ve got a polarizing filter on my lens I’m less worried about the bad light, because at least I can get good color. With that in mind, I can turn my attention to finding color—whether that’s a mountain landscape behind a field of flowers or the vibrant textiles in a crowded street market. When I’m looking for bright colors, the strong, contrasty effect of bright sunlight combined with the polarizer really plays up the contrast and makes colorful scenes pop. If nothing else, when I’ve got a polarizer on my lens I can isolate a single subject—a statue, for instance, or a tree—and use the deep blue polarized background behind it. It’s a great way to play up the graphic nature of the light and go with the flow, rather than fighting with the light nature has provided. Consider using a longer lens so you can be more selective about what you include in the frame, and in this way isolate outliers at either end of the contrast spectrum.

Let’s be crystal clear: nobody’s suggesting noontime sun is ideal for travel photography and landscapes. But if your only opportunity for some photography time during a family vacation is in the middle of the day, armed with these simple tips you’ve got a chance to make the most of it.


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